Telling Secrets

A T-shirt with the Spanish word for "sad" is part of the project.
Deron Neblett

The new white T-shirts are covered with bright colors. Some of the painting is messy and frantic, some exactingly precise. In most cases it's not hard to make out that the letters and the words are excruciating -- especially when you know they were written by children.

I don't like sex.

It's show-and-tell day at the Children's Assessment Center in the Rice Village, and what's on display are tales of horror condensed to just the few sentences that can fit on the front of a T-shirt, along with a drawing or two.

After all the trust I gave you
you hurt me

Like adults before them, the girls and boys, all victims of sexual abuse, were given the chance to say whatever they wanted about what happened to them. Some reveal pain. Some are accusatory. Some want to protect other children.

Don't ever let this happen to you. I'm sorry if it happed to u.


Sexual abuse is not nice, most
Predators come out at night
Even though strangers will
Come up to you and say
I won't bite try to give you candy and say it's
Alright, then you will fight
Like on HBO boxing night.

Some show they've sustained pretty heavy damage. One shirt was adorned with:


And then there's the one-liners. Each of the following was on a different shirt, done by a different child:

I cryed
I felt horrible
I fell hart broken

Children suspected of being sexually abused are brought to the Children's Assessment Center for a doctor's examination, are interviewed and videotaped by specially trained personnel, are assigned child advocates to see them through the court system and are given regular counseling sessions. The point is to avoid several separate interviews at the start of the process; to instead have one videotaped examination to be accessed by all the investigating agencies.

Julia Wolf, the center's director of therapy services, came up with the idea for the T-shirts after seeing the Clothesline exhibit -- shirts done by adult victims of domestic abuse. The children at the center were told they didn't have to do a shirt, but if they did it would probably help raise awareness of the problem.

Every child said yes, Wolf says. A few adult women, who suffered abuse while they were children, did some of the shirts.

And while part of the reaction to the shirts is Why put anyone through this?, Wolf says it helped bring out responses from kids who hadn't been able to talk about what had happened to them.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, with attention to the problem heightened by almost daily revelations about the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and how it has been handling its priests who have sexually abused children who trusted them. The center wants to get its shirts out so more people can see them -- Project Row Houses is talking about displaying the shirts in August -- and is looking for other sponsors.

Among the center's shirts, perhaps saddest of all are the ones that don't have any words on them. One had just gobs of red paint on green, some of the red elongated like teardrops.

Shirts like this are from children too young to write.

Caroline and Tina, mother and daughter, are both victims of sexual abuse. Caroline and Tina are not their real names, but they have an all-too-real story that they were willing to tell to try to help others.

At 14, Tina was getting in trouble at school, skipping class and acting out. She was making herself sick by not taking care of her diet, which caused her juvenile diabetes to reel out of control. She got hauled into court for truancy, which led her to a Harris County early-intervention program and one of its counselors, Tim Conley.

It took a couple of sessions before Tina let out her secret. She'd been sexually abused at school.

A young man had started following her around in Austin High School. Tina still doesn't know who he was -- a student or drop-in -- but she knew he was bothering her. One day, he trapped her in the school restroom, where he sexually molested her and threatened her. She told some of her special ed teachers, she says, but they told her to sit down, certain she was making something up to find just one more excuse for not doing her schoolwork.

She didn't tell her mother; says she was too scared that Caroline might reject her. But after two counseling sessions, she told Conley and he asked her permission to tell her mother. "And then we got on the road," Conley says.  

Conley worked with Tina until she was in a better state of mind. She moved on in her life, and he moved to a new job at the Children's Assessment Center. Two years later Caroline tracked him down, saying Tina's problems had returned and she needed more help. Not only was Tina not doing well in school -- she repeatedly failed ninth grade -- but she wasn't taking care of the diabetes again.

At the same time Tina restarted counseling with Conley, Caroline began attending meetings of a "nonoffending caregivers group." At first she thought it was stupid, but then she says she realized that the other people in there were normal just like she is, except something terrible had happened to someone they loved and were supposed to protect.

The counselor of Caroline's group came to Conley, saying that 40-year-old Caroline had some issues of her own. An uncle had raped her when she was a child. Over and over and over again, when he visited her room at night. In fact, Conley says, the uncle raped some of Caroline's girlfriends. "It was the classic part of grooming. Get them to bring their friends into this situation as well," Conley says.

So Caroline also became Conley's patient because, as she says she figured out, "You have to deal with your own stuff before you can help your daughter."

In working with Tina, Conley says, there was still a piece that didn't fit: She had started getting in trouble even before she was attacked in the school bathroom. He asked Caroline when her daughter's behavior had changed. He started doing mother-daughter therapy.

Turns out there was one more family secret to dredge up. When Tina was eight -- Caroline was molested at that same age -- she was sexually abused by her grandfather, Caroline's father. He would come to her at night under the guise of tucking her into bed and would fondle her. She'd never told anyone.

The guilt for Caroline was enormous. First, because the same thing had happened to her, and yet she still hadn't seen it when her daughter was molested. And second because they are Latinas. "I didn't want to tell a Hispanic family. I told my husband about this. He couldn't believe it," Caroline says. Hispanic families don't deal well with accusations of sexual abuse, especially when they're against the head of the entire family, the grandfather, Caroline says.

"It's culture. How is culture going to affect the therapeutic process?" Conley says. In Caroline's case, it caused her to stay silent for 25 years while suffering regular bouts of anxiety flashbacks. For Tina, it was eight years of silence before she trusted someone enough to tell what her grandfather had done.

Tina and Caroline worked on their T-shirts side by side. They turned down a suggestion that they do one together, saying they had separate stories to tell.

Tina's spoke of her relief at finally having other people believe what had happened to her:

At first I was afraid to tell anybody
but I'm glad I did
because now I don't live
in a secret fear.

Caroline's T-shirt shows a little girl inside a mirror and a big girl outside the mirror with these words:

Nobody believes me.

Both put rainbows on their shirts. They say that shows they have hope.

Conley and Wolf say they now recognize that the child victims they counsel will be coming back to them at different stages in their lives. How children perceive something that happens to them at age five can change greatly by age ten, with the onset of puberty and in the later teen years. So now the therapists say good-bye for a while, but advise children and their parents that they probably will need to return.

For Caroline, there's been alienation from some relatives after she accused her father of molesting Tina. She also is dealing with years of resentment against her mother, who died a few years ago.

"My mother's little brother, he was the one grooming the family. My dad and my mom loved him. Right before I was to get married, I told my mother. He used to come to our beds every night. All my mom could say was 'You must have liked it.' "

Caroline says her uncle is still around but not around her family. She says she leaves it to God to take care of him.

Tina still struggles at age 16. She is homeschooled now. Her mother has nothing good to say about Austin High or Houston Independent School District and how they treated her daughter.  

Tina tried going to the Sanchez charter school for a while, and they made all kinds of accommodations for her, even allowing her to use the faculty bathroom, but she just couldn't face the thought of going into a public restroom.

Her mother likes the homeschooling program, says her daughter is finally making huge strides academically. Her counselor likes it because it avoids the stress of the school bathroom.

Asked what she wants most, Tina says, "I wish I could have my life back. Sometimes I think I'm not going to make it." She says she keeps thinking "negative stuff."

"I hope I get better," Tina says. "It hurts when you know you can't even go to school and be safe."

Still, asked again what she would most like to do, Tina says, "I do want to go to prom, and with all my friends."

Caroline says she wants to break the cycle, although already she and her daughter are the cycle. Tina says that when she has children, they won't be abused. "Because I'm going to listen to them and I'm going to give them enough love."

The center's Wolf says they believe that with early intervention, they can break the cycle. "There's a lot of self-loathing, that's our biggest intervention with these kids." But they don't know for sure. "We've only been doing a lot of intervention. We're trying to do more research. We need to know what works, what do we need to do more," Wolf says.

The point of the T-shirt project, Wolf says, is to bring the problem to the forefront. "This is what you're doing. This is the damage being done."

Conley says many times adults, including teachers, don't think they have to report child sexual abuse. "You don't have to prove it. You don't have to be right. But you do have to report it," he says.

With all the fears about sex education in the schools, Conley says, sex has a mystique and a taboo to it that tells kids clearly that it is something to keep secret. Telling children about how to protect themselves from sexual abuse is supposed to be happening at home, he says, but it's not. Conley wants schools to start taking on the task.

Children should be educated first, to keep themselves safe sexually and then to feel comfortable enough to tell someone if they are abused, Conley says. And therein lies one of the saddest things about this whole philosophy of dealing with the sexual abuse of children: It all rests on the child.

The child is supposed to know what to do to protect herself.

It is up to the child to report being abused to someone other than the parent, uncle, grandfather, family friend, teacher or stranger who did the abusing.

It's up to the child to determine that what is happening is a perversion of the love that every child has a right to have in his or her life.

"I'd like to shift the focus from making the kids tell to stopping the offenders," Wolf says. "As a community, as a system, we're putting the responsibility on the kids. A lot of them can't handle those decisions. How do you tell someone, 'My dad slept with me last night'?"

"I've been doing this ten years, and I still don't see the answers."

With the T-shirts, with the continued work at the Children's Assessment Center, Wolf and Conley hope to tear up the taboos that so conveniently allow child sexual abuse to flourish and to force all of us -- however uncomfortable it may be -- to face the fact that our system isn't working.

Adults need to take on the burden that kids have been shouldering for too long. There needs to be better sex education. There needs to be more listening to kids, our own and others. We need to get far more upset about the silences and far less worried about "indelicate" subjects. We need to shine some light on the darkness.

And then maybe a pretty young woman like Tina won't be frozen in limbo, dreaming of a prom she's too scared to go to.

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